Why Breakfast Reminds Us of Our Mothers
From cream of wheat to Grape-Nuts, it's a meal many people associate with their mother figure
As a kid, I wasn’t much of a breakfast eater, a habit that’s kind of stuck with me through the years. But breakfast, whether you eat it or not, is the most resonant of meals. A dish made for you and served to you while you’re still tousle-haired and sleepy is something special. As kids, if we were lucky, someone who cared about us was usually making it (even if they were coercing us to eat every bite, which felt like a kind of torture), meaning the food somehow became infused with that fuzzy, nostalgic childhood recollection of love, a feeling that lasts to this day. For me, that breakfast is cream of wheat, the porridge made of farina, which my mom made. I salted and peppered it, I put a pat of butter in it to melt (or my mom did), I dipped toast in it, and I ate every bite.
Does everyone have this kind of childhood breakfast memory? With Mother’s Day fast approaching, I asked around to find out what breakfasts people most associate with their mothers. I was deluged by responses. Of course, dads and grandparents and other friendly people made us memorable breakfasts, and we even made our breakfasts ourselves, but often, moms, or mother figures, were kind of the breakfast superstars.
Fellow writer Nadia Chaudhury’s mom made “a big pan of thick scrambled eggs, full of onions, cilantro, and hot chili peppers, served along with cups of chai, while my brother, sister, and I would watch Saturday morning cartoons (hello, Pepper Ann). When she wanted to switch things up, she'd make what we grew up calling Bombay toast (essentially French toast).” Meredith Modzelewksi, who works in social media and digital strategy, told me her mom served up “Eggo waffles spread with peanut butter, or sometimes with yogurt. Runner-up is Grape-Nuts sprinkled with brown sugar. And yes, I actually did like Grape-Nuts as a kid. But only because of that key addition of brown sugar, I'm sure.”
The dishes were creative as well as diligent, ranging from practical to quite decadent. My high school friend Nancy Lovvorn Turbyfill’s mom made something called “eggs á la goldenrod — sliced hard-boiled eggs in a standard white sauce on top of toast. For the ‘goldenrod’ part, you were supposed to reserve and crumble some of the yolks, then sprinkle them on top of the whole business. We generally preferred to sprinkle crumbled bacon on top instead. Fancy!” Other moms provided Nutrigrain bars, to be eaten on the way to school; chocolate Pop-Tarts (jealous); Cheerios; French Toast (washed down with Five Alive); pancakes with chocolate chips; “burned egg whites—it was all I would eat”; or “scrambled eggs with a slice of American cheese on wonder bread” (sounds delicious). My best friend’s mom made a sausage egg casserole that I still crave.
Of course, food is not just food, it conveys culture and history and tradition. And breakfast is laden with those things, representing a diversity of backgrounds and experiences on a plate. On weekends, journalist Araceli Cruz Belz’s mom made “chorizo con huevos or tostaditas con huevos... [she] still makes it for me anytime I come home and visit.” Art director Lucy Quintanilla’s mom—and aunts and grandma, it was a family affair—served “breakfast tacos with homemade pinto beans and tortillas, chorizo and potato, and homemade salsa. Plus, bonus bacon. We use bacon grease to make refried beans. Only a few pieces are made and if you are the first up to eat (or someone saves you a piece) you get 'bonus bacon.' Still a rule in the family to this day.” My old friend Melissa Bailey Lewis breakfasted on a Southern classic: “Fried eggs over easy, pan-fried country ham, and biscuits with ‘red-eye gravy’ (made by pouring black coffee over the drippings from the country ham). I would also have a side of a sorghum and butter mixture in which to dip my biscuits.” Meanwhile, digital art director Jay Guillermo ate “Spam or bacon, white rice, and a sunny-side up egg. A traditional Filipino breakfast made by my mom. But definitely not traditional in America after a sleepover.”
Breakfast could be a moment for calm, possibly before the chaos—as demonstrated by “cinnamon sugar toast” made by another high school friend Kathleen McKay’s mom. It was “bread with a crap ton of butter and cinnamon and sugar toasted so that the sugar made a hard crust over the top of the bread. Sooooo much sugar! Then she would throw me outside for the day and not have to deal with the maniacal aftermath.” Breakfast might also stand for a kind of Rockwellian depiction of home. Deputy digital editor Sam Escobar, for instance, had “Blueberry muffins on Sundays. My mom makes them still and listens to NPR when she does it, and it's the only very normal thing about my family.”
As for my breakfast, I like to think it symbolized both me and my mom: her desire to feed me, a picky child; my desire to have something that wasn’t quite the traditional breakfast and certainly wasn’t basic cereal, which my brother adored. I thought we both loved cream of wheat, and maybe even eating it together. Then I asked her about it.
Me, texting my dad, because he’s the one with the smartphone: If you have a moment will you ask mom why she made me cream of wheat for breakfast/if she liked and ate it herself? Did her mom make it?
Dad: Mom has no memory of making c of w. And never wanted to have it herself.
Me: WHAT! she always made it for me. Maybe you did!?
Dad: Hmm...are you sure it wasn't oatmeal?
Dad: Well she has no recollection of it. Are you writing a story on c of w?
Me: i WAS! I still am. now i guess i’ll have to tweak it slightly. what DOES she remember making me for breakfast?
Dad: I remember making you an egg in the hole but not cream of wheat. —Mom
Which just goes to show how memories work, how unreliable we are, even as our own narrators. “Egg in the hole” is a breakfast that my mom did make, but it my brother’s favorite, not mine. It involves cracking an egg and frying it in a piece of toast you’ve cut a hole out of to make a space for said egg, and sure, I’d eat that, I’d relish it, even, bring me an egg in the hole asap, but it’s not cream of wheat, which I still defend as my favorite Mom dish. Maybe she forgot. She cooked for us so much. Maybe I forgot. I’ve eaten a lot of meals in my time.
But, no, I can see it: The blue and pink bowl in front of me on the kitchen counter, the yellow of the butter swirling with the flecked creaminess of the wheat. The perceptible change in the air as hot cereal vibes infuse it. The smell. The sticky-smoothness on the spoon. I know it happened! This is how redolent a mom’s breakfast dish is. Even if they don’t remember it, we do. Thanks, Moms, for feeding us—whatever that breakfast happened to be.